Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Looking for the soul of journalism's new machines at ONA 2014

When journalists worry more about finding an audience than finding its soul.

I don't know if they'll ever finally get around to thawing Walt Disney, wherever he and his probably apocryphal  ice box may be, and successfully re-animate the legendary animator. But if they do, and if they ask him to design an American city, I'm pretty sure what he'd come up would be Chicago, circa 2014. The 100-block downtown core of America's third-largest city rivals the Magic Kingdom for cleanliness and gee-whiz factor, with its muscular, sharply angled glass condo and hotel towers -- one after another after another -- so immaculate looking you could probably eat a fried pirogi off them. The Chicago River that once caught fire from pollution is now an unnatural Caribbean green.

The towers are so tall that you can't see the prairie for the steel trees, that you have to pull up the Drudge Report on your device to remember that nearby there's some violent place Drudge calls "Chicagoland" where 20, 30, 40 poor folks get shot every weekend. The bubble was hard to escape...literally, after a troubled man decided Thursday night to burn down a big chunk of Chicago's air-traffic control center. Suddenly the world's top Internet journalists (joined, inexplicably, by me) -- after swapping 12 months worth of acquired knowledge in three crammed days -- were unable to connect, to get to the places where we wanted to go next.

OK, so I'm writing this from the frenzied waiting area at O'Hare, so maybe an 8-hour flight delay has given me waaaay too much time to craft overwrought metaphors about the 15th annual confab of the Online News Association, where 1,899 really, really smart people who've taken Internet journalism from 0 to about 35 mph over the last decade-and-a-half gather once a year to give it a little more gas. But I come away feeling like online journalism -- which, let's be honest, IS journalism for a growing majority of people -- is trapped in something of a bubble right now. The big fixes have all been done. Most news people are thinking digitally now (and I won't name the folks I know who aren't, or won't) but the pedal won't go down any further. So much energy and so many person-hours was spent chasing things that mattered so much in 2009 -- like having a cool homepage, for example -- but are fast becoming meaningless five quick years later.

And yet the drive for eyeballs, and their mobile advertising pennies, goes on so frantically that like a high-speed chase on the L.A. TV news, you get mesmerized by the flashing sirens and the rapid lane changes but you have no idea why it started. Why do we do this journalism thing, anyway? Where, to borrow the title of Tracy Kidder's 1980s tome, is the soul of the new machine? Or of the new cool app, at least?

The most memorable moment of the three-day conference, for me and some others whom I spoke with, came when Tony Haile, the charismatic fast-talking Brit who runs the web-tracking service Chartbeat, expressed his hope that both editors and advertisers were finally figuring our how to track the stories that actually engage readers, and not the just empty calories of celebrity-half-clothed clickbait. Said Haile of the fact that Facebook's algorithms kept recycling Ice Bucket Challenges when Twitter was on fire with #Ferguson: "Twitter was important then, because Ferguson got into my soul."

There was a palpable jolt, because for that one moment Haile touched on the real reason behind why most of in the room are still hooked on the impossible dream of journalism...but then the moment passed.

Let me be as clear as I can be: This not a piece bashing the ONA or the Chicago confab. It was a great event, I met some amazing people, including some I'd only known previously through a virtual reality, and the passion and spirit of innovation among the presenters was palpable. The Saturday night awards dinner honored some awe-inspiring pieces of journalism (although it's telling that not-profit-needing ProPublica and NPR were maybe the biggest winners). I learned a lot over the three days that will make me a better journalist...on the margins. And that's the thing.

This was my first ONA, but I spoke to others who'd been to the event multiple times, and they seemed to agree there was a certain weariness in 2014, and not just because the blues bars in Chicago stay open until 4 a.m. (although that didn't help). They said that the vibe was a lot different 10, even 5 years ago -- that people had big ideas and dreams about saving big journalism, that they were on the cutting edge of the movement to carry on the legacy of news in a digital world.

That didn't exactly happen..and now we're reduced to tweaking. People are fixated on one thing: What is the secret sauce for making your story go viral. I went to one session called "How Can I Make My Story Go Viral" and another that was called (you'll never believe this) "You'll Never Believe How This Story Went Viral." There was debate over whether you'll get more re-tweets for your story if the headline is in the form of a question or a statement. There was also speculation at more than one session whether putting the word "congratulations" in a Facebook post bumps it to the top of their news feed (the conclusion was that may be an urban legend, but only some dude in Menlo Park knows for sure). The issue at hand was often how to get 100 retweets for a story instead of 10 -- and I kept remembering I work for a news organization whose loss of paid customers just in the last decade is in the tens of thousands.

It's hard when there's two 800-pound gorillas in the conference room.

One was money. Back when I was most interested in journalism reform, in 2007, I attended at major conference at one of the nation's most innovative journalism schools, City University of New York, where attendees were told in the first five minutes of the meeting that the question of money -- who would actually pay for the journalism we were reforming -- was completely off the table, not to be mentioned. I saw jaws drop all over the room...but now it's seven years later and NOTHING HAS CHANGED! No one wants to dump that challenging bucket of ice water on their new app or their customized web analytics, even as the once impossible challenge of paying for any of this just got 10 times harder now that nearly half of all news is consumed on a smartphone.

But there was actually a sense of something even more troubling -- a loss of control. Journalists don't often say this out loud, but we do think there's an element of art to what we do. And what do most artists want, as much if not more than money? Creative control. But permeating almost every session was a sense of desperation -- at regaining some kind of control over how we connect and impact with our audience. The homepages that newsrooms have sunk countless dollars and person-hours into upgrading are already dying a rapid death. Increasingly, story traffic depends on the whim of the swipes -- with faceless folks in the bowels of Silicon Valley, at Google and increasingly at the social media giants of Twitter and especially Facebook, exerting an inordinate amount of power. If there was one word that I heard more than "viral" at the ONA, it was "algorithm." Facebook has completely coded the way that millions of would-be news consumers get information, and no one knows how to crack it.

Congratulations, Facebook.

But there was reason for hope when you scratched hard enough. In the last window of the last day, I attended a session by three journalists from Chicago's public radio station WBEZ, about their two-year-old project called Curious City. The project aims to empower citizens of the Windy City -- by not only offering to answer their questions, but by including the information-seekers in the reporting process and getting others in the community involved along the way. The project has uncovered real news -- discovering that the city was trying to abandon a valuable firefighter-safety program, for example -- but also tried to get to the bottom of weird smells or deployed a veteran cop to help find the best donuts. For 60 minutes, I heard about engaging human beings instead of tricking an algorithm.

A few hours later, my iPhone and I were on a CTA train, and my screen was white-hot, with gunfire and anger again in the streets of Ferguson, and with thousands of protesters flooding downtown Hong Kong. Just like Tony Haile had said, the news I was reading in the palm of my hand got into my soul in a way that much of what had transpired at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers did not. This is the battle of our 21st Century -- the quest for a true democracy -- and whether regular people are going to have power over their lives, or whether that power will keep flowing to big, algorithm-writing corporations and the 1 Percent that they enrich. Ironically, just hours after the end of ONA, I read about the rise of "corporate journalism" -- wealthy firms creating their own newsrooms that will fill the void of shrinking newsrooms that once served the public, the ones that were represented in Chicago.

Journalism won't be truly reformed until we focus a little less on becoming the virus and a lot more on becoming the cure, whether it's for the wounded souls of Ferguson or struggling folks like Maria Fernandes, who died just trying to make ends meet. If we can do that, if we can truly feed the tortured soul of journalism that's buried but still breathing deep down inside the new machines, it won't really matter if it comes in the form of a question or a statement, will it?